The past few months culminating in the Climate Change summit at the United Nations and protests in major cities over the lack of action by world governments represents a tipping point.  People in general, especially the young who have the most to lose from climate change, are demanding action around reduction in Co2, and new ways of thinking about protecting the environment rather than exploiting it.

Watching these events, I asked myself the question “what are we doing about it in the ecommerce industry? Ecommerce is growing rapidly towards dropping the E and just becoming “Commerce”.  As this shift gains further momentum, there is more pressure put on the resources needed to support this growth, and that leads potential damage to the environment.  Should we be asking ourselves if we need to put “green” in front of Commerce and make it a little more planet friendly?  If we agree we should, then what can merchants and ecommerce providers do to help?

Here are some ideas that we can build into our ecommerce platforms so merchants can offer their customers the “things” they want, while being mindful of creating and providing those things in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

1)From free shipping to responsible shipping

Perhaps the biggest cost outside of production of the goods sold via ecommerce is fulfillment.  Think the trucks driving the packages onto your street, from city to city along the fulfillment chain, and the planes getting them from source warehouses to hubs.  Free shipping has fueled ecommerce growth because consumers know they can order what they like, at the same or lower price than in local stores, without additional cost.

While I don’t think free shipping is going to go away, perhaps adding the option to practice “responsible shipping” is a good practice.  Canadian airlines for instance offer a “carbon offset” option at checkout to allow consumers to balance out the impact of their trip.  Adding an option to donate a nominal amount to causes which help the environment, even if they are tokens, make everyone more aware of the cost of that free shipping.

2)Green routing in the fulfillment chain

So often our algorithms are optimized for efficiency and cost, not for minimizing environmental impact.  I vividly recall a conversation with a retailer about adding “green routing” options to the fulfillment software they used, so that instead of ensuring a package got from A to B as quickly or cost effectively as possible, it got there with the minimum amount of Co2 output.  We technologists can invest more into these options, as we begin to consider cost elements other than dollars and time. Not only will our software decisions be more environmentally friendly, but our consumers who face a world of similar choice may see these differentiators and choose our services over others.

3)More visibility into production techniques

As consumers we typically have no visibility into the sourcing and production of the items we buy.  They appear on our doorstep, stimulate the oxytocin in our brains with joy chemicals, and we unwrap and enjoy our new present.  However, there’s a world behind the item we’ve just received, and the cost of the production of that item and its impact on the environment and our fellow human beings is worth considering in our purchase behavior.  Given a choice between an item that costs 20% less, but comes with bad practices in terms of water consumption, waste and bad human labor conditions, and one that is respectful of the environment and labor, I would say a lot of consumers would choose the higher priced item with the more positive environmental impact.

4) Production scoring system – gScore

The challenge is to provide more visibility into sourcing of materials, management of the environmental cost of production, and the working conditions of our fellow man, and package that in a quickly consumable way alongside the product on the website or app.  The industry that has had the most impact in terms of consumer attention is the food industry with calorie and ingredient lists on packaging – most people want to know what calories, sugars, carbs are in what they eat.  What if there was a scoring system on the environment impact of an item clearly visible on the website or app that allows consumers to quickly measure the impact of an item against their values and beliefs as it comes to the environment?  A scorecard if you will for the environmental production damage of an item.  It may lead to less purchase behavior, but it would direct purchase behavior to the most efficient gCommerce producers as an important differentiator alongside peer reviews and price.

There have been some attempts to do this, such as EPEAT for electronics and Sustaintex for textiles and IEEE1680 for computers and displays, however none of these is easily identifiable by consumers as a measure of the environmental impact of the good they are purchasing at buy time.  What if we could “sort by gScore” in addition to price and speed of delivery, to at least factor in the environmental impact of the goods we are adding to cart.

There are things we can do as ecommerce merchants and vendors to reduce the environmental impact of our increasing role at the center of commerce.  Consumers are thinking about this factor more and more with their purchase decisions, and its time we factored these into our designs for commerce properties and supply chains.

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